The Labyrinth at St. Andrew

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. Mark 6:31-32

Why Have a Labyrinth?
The labyrinth is a prayer for the whole body. It is a path that exerts our physical effort to find our spiritual rest at the center of the soul. It is to "come away ...and rest."

Hildegard of Bingen defined divinity as "a circle, a wheel, a whole". Throughout human history circles and spirals have described wholeness and the completeness of life. They represent the cycles and seasons we eternally move through.
Perhaps one of the largest misconceptions of labyrinths is that they attempt to whisk our minds away to an imaginary, safer destination, as though our bodies, minds and spirits can be separated. Labyrinths are not meant to be an escape, a portal to a distant world, but simply a retreat to gain perspective and renewed energy. They are very much grounded in this world where you can feel the textures and hear the sounds around you.

Medieval Christians found many uses, whether for a symbolic journey toward redemption, or as an allegorical walk with Christ as he journeyed to Jerusalem and his death on the cross and his resurrection to new life. Many also saw it as an allegory for bringing order out of chaos in creation, or as an access to the invisible in the midst of terra firma.
Physicians in modern medicine are also recognizing the healing properties of walking a labyrinth and the varieties of paths toward wellness.

Dr. Lauren Artress wrote in, Walking a Sacred Path, "Walking the labyrinth clears the mind and gives insight into the spiritual journey. It urges action. It calms people in the throes of life transitions. It helps them see their lives in the context of a path, a pilgrimage. They realize that they are not human beings on a spiritual path but spiritual beings on a human path. ...The experience is different for everyone because each of us brings different raw material to the labyrinth. We bring our unique hopes, dreams, history and longings of the soul."

Where to Labyrinths Come From?
A clay tablet found in Phylos, Greece inscribed with a labyrinth was dated to before 3200 B.C.E. And the term labyrinth comes from the oldest positively dated labyrinth in the palace of King Nestor also in Phylos, built around 1230 B.C.E. But cultures around the world, on nearly every continent have used spirals, medicine wheels and circles as spiritual symbols throughout human history.

The Nazcans of Peru carved them into the desert canvas so enormous they could only be seen entirely from an airplane's view high above. The Hopi and O'odam Indians from what is now Arizona wove them into baskets and blankets for ceremonial purposes as well as daily use. Swedish fishers built them in the hopes of ensuring fair weather and a prosperous catch. And when Medieval Christians could not make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem they compacted the long path into a spiral form on the floor of some of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe.

Undoubtedly the most well known labyrinth, an eleven circuit design, was built on the floor of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartes, France in the twelfth century. It incorporated the unique rose window design from the cathedral in the center. Here in the United States, the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, CA has ignited a renewed interest and has educated millions of new walkers in the Veriditas Project. (information from Lynn Penny, "The Labyrinth: Take a Walk on the Spiritual Side", Horizons Magazine)

This Labyrinth
This labyrinth was created in April 2004 by the dedicated members of St. Andrew Presbyterian. It is a classical, or seven circuit labyrinth, which means it has seven circles which connected together create one path. The base is composed of landscape fabric, asphalt millings, and wood chips and the axis is set up on true north, south, east, and west directions. East is facing toward the church. Our labyrinth is one of five in the state of Montana registered with the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator organized by Veriditas and the The Labyrinth Society.

How to Walk a Labyrinth
Probably the first thing that needs to be said is to walk the labyrinth for yourself. That is, walk at your own pace and in your own way. Most people will tell you a slow meditative walk, being mindful of each step is the preferred way, but dancing is also not uncommon. Prepare yourself before entering by allowing your breathing and your body to relax, and perhaps offering a short prayer of opening to grace.

One of the unique features about a labyrinth that is in the middle of a busy city is that we cannot escape from the noises and sounds of daily life. In this situation use them to remind you of the world we live in with all its pressures and blessings. Pray for those sounds you hear.

If there are others walking at the same time be considerate of them as they journey and silently step to the side as you pass each other. As in life, a hospitable smile and consideration as you acknowledge each other's presence is a walk of grace. It's best not to strike up conversation with others unless they welcome it, as they are likely also in prayer. You may want to offer thanks for meeting someone else along the way of your shared path.

When you arrive at the turning points on the axis you might stop and turn to the outside as you face geographical east, west, north or south. Remind yourself that people will come from every direction and are welcome at the table of the Lord under the sovereignty of our God of all corners of the earth.

At the center take time for mediation or prayer. You might want to pray the scriptures in the ancient tradition of Lectio Divina where you read a scripture passage three times slowly, allowing it to sink deeper into you each time and allowing phrases, words or images to rest and illumine your heart and mind.

The gospels tell the story of how Peter, James, and John, who were with Jesus at his transfiguration, that they did not want to leave the mountaintop. They wanted to build a place to stay in retreat. But like the disciples, we have to return to the world. The return trip out is just as important as the entrance. Let the journey prepare you for the rest of your day or the week ahead.

The path has traditionally been described as a three-fold journey:

Purgation (Releasing) ~ A releasing, a letting go of the details of your life. This is the act of shedding thoughts and distractions. A time to open the heart and quiet the mind.

Illumination (Receiving) ~ When you reach the center, stay there as long as you like. It is a place of meditation and prayer. Receive what is there for you to receive.

Union (Returning) ~ As you leave, following the same path out of the center as you came in, you enter the third stage, which is joining God, your Higher Power, or the healing forces at work in the world. Each time you walk the labyrinth you become more empowered to find and do the work you feel your soul reaching for.

Finally, don't expect anything to happen right away. The experience may not have immediate impact, but like any spiritual discipline it is much like the exercise of our bodies - it becomes more helpful as it is repeated and becomes part of our routine for our spiritual health.

Decide now when you will return to walk the labyrinth again. And spend some time reflecting on your experience.

  • How did the turns match my own life's twists and turns?
  • What are the new insights I've discovered about what it means to walk the way of Christ in the company of others?
  • How have I gotten closer to a decision I've been struggling with?

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